RAPHAEL | Stephen Graham Jones.
Nightmare Magazine (online content).
⇒Today we’re talking about Stephen Graham Jones’s incredible work of supernatural/psychological horror, “Raphael.” It was originally published in Cemetery Dance in 2006, republished in Jones’s story collection The Ones that Got Away (where I first discovered the story), and now appears as a “free sample” from the digital issue of Nightmare Magazine (link below). By internet standards, this is certainly a longer story, but I definitely recommend reading it more than once to see how elements from the beginning echo in surprising ways later in the novel; the story’s structure is both intricate/logical and very unpredictable, even with all of the narrator’s foreshadowing (i.e., he tells us from the very beginning who is going to die, and how).
[Real quick side note: if you’re not familiar with Stephen Graham Jones, you need to get familiar. I recommend The Ones that Got Away for more literary horror tales like this one, Growing Up Dead in Texas for a glimpse of his non-horror work (probably my favorite book of his), and The Least of My Scars for equal parts brilliant storytelling and batshit fucking insanity.]
Okay, as usual I’ve spent two paragraphs just getting to the part where I actually talk about the story. I don’t want to get all grad-school Lit-critty in my reading of Jones’s story, but I do want to look at a key element of this story to see how this piece fits within the horror tradition (yeah, that’s a pretty Lit-critty direction to take this, I know) as well as what this means for plot structure, character building, and other devices. I want to touch on some nuts-and-bolts craft elements, but to do so I need to get a little high-concept for a minute. Forgive me.
Let’s talk about trauma.
This probably isn’t a novel idea (I’m no expert on the horror field, so apologies if I’m rehashing a familiar concept), but when it comes to horror, trauma is a driving force. Think about it: something bad happens (the cause–the trauma), and something negative (the curse, the haunting–the effect) results.
And that’s a trope, really a foundation of the horror story. That’s why the haunted video tape keeps killing people. That’s why the house is plagued by scary things. That’s why monsters kill off the partying teenagers in the cabin (in order: the Black Guy, the Jock, the Jock’s Slutty Girlfriend, and so on). But trauma shapes characters’ psyches, too. And the works of horror that go for a greater human import (going for that capital-L Literary significance) use trauma to craft psychology, not simply plot points.
I’m not going to tell you much about the story’s plot because once we’re finished here, I know you’re going to go over to Nightmare Magazine and read the hell out of this story. But here are a few bullet points for context:
- There are four central characters, kids on the cusp of adolescence: the narrator (who’s looking back on his childhood) and his three friends, one of whom is a girl, whose hair is so long we can’t see her face; they all (i.e. the three boys) all secretly have a crush on the girl.
- The kids are “invisible,” social outcasts at school, for all the usual reasons. They like to go out by the lake and share scary stories, see how far they can go.
- Something happens–the trauma, or the ostensible trauma–and it’s so well written, every beat perfectly timed, every gesture and image deadly precise. (Let’s put it this way: when Jones wants to do scary, he does scary.)
- Here’s the thing, and if you were ever a teen you probably know this to be true: the transition to adolescence itself is a traumatic experience (unfamiliar everything, fight-or-flight panic, acne, vicious peers, crushing emotions, etc.), so on top of the horror-story trauma that occurs in “Raphael” we also have the growing-up trauma(s) that exist outside of this.
And this, I suppose, is where things get complex, and this is also what makes a story of this kind so powerful. This is a story about how people process (or fail to process) trauma in all its forms (supernatural and not). Regardless of what happens out by that lake, that day in the narrator’s childhood, there is an essential sense of detachment, of brokenness that runs through this character’s life; the supernatural event is really just icing on the poisoned cake.
In my (admittedly inexperienced) view, all good horror is driven by high-level psychological writing. I don’t care about things jumping out of the dark or crawling across the ceiling at night. I want to see a human being, someone not unlike myself, a rational person, pushed to her or his limit, and I want to see them absolutely lose their frickin’ mind–but in a way that, in the distorted, self-contained system of her/his mind, somehow makes sense. I like a story that makes the improbable or even reprehensible seem perfectly reasonable. With the right trauma and in the hands of a skilled writer like Stephen Graham Jones (as this story demonstrates), this is definitely achievable.
⇒Read this story @ Nightmare Magazine (and pick up the whole magazine issue while you’re there).